The introduction to the world, in October 1970, of Mike Doonesbury was innocuous enough. “I hail from Tulsa, Oklahoma,” he told his befuddled new college roommate, “and women adore me.” That Doonesbury strip seemed very much like what it was—an extension of Garry Trudeau’s collegiate Bull Tales cartoons—and not at all like what it would become: a giant barb of opinion, aimed squarely into the teeth of politics and society.
Since its debut, Doonesbury has offered sly commentary on the Vietnam war, the Iran-Contra scandal, multiple elections, Watergate, assorted wars in Iraq, gay marriage, political corruption, the war on drugs, and nearly every American president during its lifetime. (A faceless Barack Obama has, thus far, made only one appearance, in a strip last May.) This is an impressive sea of troubles for any art form, leave alone a daily newspaper comic strip, to take on. In 1975, US President Gerald Ford would famously say: “There are only three major vehicles to keep us informed as to what is going on in Washington: the electronic media, the print media, and Doonesbury, not necessarily in that order.”
Despite everything it has lived through, the spirit that animates Doonesbury is hardly cynicism; it is closer to a sort of incredulity at the world and its complex cast of characters. There is, in that incredulity, a touching strain of idealism, one that can also be found in R.K. Laxman’s Common Man and in Doonesbury’s television counterpart, Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. From the repeated defeat of this idealism, all three draw their daily drama.
After all, the unremittingly keen edge to Doonesbury’s satire is due in part to the Trudeau’s talent, but also in part to the ability of political life to provide ceaseless fodder. After all these decades, and all over the world, politicians have persisted in being venal; armchair liberals have persisted in vegetating in their furniture of choice; right-wing radicals have persisted in spouting near-pure nonsense. This is both the tragedy and the comedy of Doonesbury and its targets. That many aspects of politics continue to be farcical and aggravating would have been distressing, were it not for the happy fact that those farces and aggravations fuel the satire of creations like Doonesbury.
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